by Amy L. Brandt, MIT Press, November 2014. 236 p. ill. ISBN 9780262027533 (cl.), $29.95.
Reviewed March 2015
Ian McDermott, Collection Development Manager, Artstor, email@example.com
Amy Brandt, McKinnon Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Chrysler Museum of Art, provides a critical reevaluation (and renaming) of neoconceptual artists, typically called neo-geo, in New York City during the 1980s. By closely examining the work of Jeff Koons, Peter Halley, Philip Taafe, Haim Steinbach, Sherrie Levine, Ashley Bickerton, and many others, Brandt demolishes the Neo Geo pejorative (think bright colors and geometric forms) and arrives at a much more convincing and meaningful analysis based on the artists' theoretical underpinnings.
First, Brandt gives a solid history lesson by mapping the terrain of East Village art in the 1980s. Simply knowing where these artists exhibited, who ran the galleries, their critical reception, and how neoconceptual artists appeared alongside contemporaries including Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf, and Julian Schnabel, is helpful. Basic knowledge of critical theory of the 1960s and 1970s is essential for understanding neoconceptualism, and Brandt provides an excellent overview of poststructuralist thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Julia Kristeva. Intertextuality is a central concept for these artists who see their work in an ongoing dialogue with theory, art, and popular culture. To prove this point, Brandt dedicates a chapter to four artist case studies and explains how they were influenced by the aforementioned theorists. Brandt's strength here is a sophisticated blend of methodologies. She combines evidence from artists' writings and interviews with her own theoretical and formal analysis.
Brandt further establishes neoconceptualism's intertextuality through several chapters that address the artists' relationships with Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptualism, and the Pictures Generation. In particular, Brandt does for neconceptualism what Cecile Whiting's A Taste for Pop did for that style by foregrounding the sharp socio-political commentary in works by Koons and Steinbach. Conversely, if Brandt's argument has one weakness it is that neoconceptualism emerges as ideologically malleable. The intertextuality Brandt works hard to address is sometimes overwhelmed by the breadth of styles, movements, and theories they reference. In other words, what doesn't neoconceptualism reference? In the 1980s, writers like Hal Foster claimed they simply reflected commodity culture and the increasingly commercialized art world. This criticism lingers for several artists included in Interplay (e.g. Koons) but Brandt disproves or at least complicates this reading for many others. Moreover, Brandt's rebranding of neo-geo into neoconceptualism argues that these artists possess a savvy understanding of the art market, and postmodernism in general, enabling them to at once reap its benefits while maintaining a critical distance. Interplay is expertly researched with detailed endnotes, includes plentiful color illustrations, and is essential for advanced art historians studying the art of the 1980s.